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Getty acquires first photos ever taken of ancient ruins ISIS recently destroyed

An ancient Roman triumphal arch at Palmyra, Syria, seen in an 1864 photograph by Louis Vignes and printed by Charles Gegre. ISIS forces recently destroyed the arch and other treasured ruins at Palmyra. The Getty Research Institute has acquired a set of 47 photographs by Vignes of Palmyra and Beirut.

An ancient Roman triumphal arch at Palmyra, Syria, seen in an 1864 photograph by Louis Vignes and printed by Charles Gegre. ISIS forces recently destroyed the arch and other treasured ruins at Palmyra. The Getty Research Institute has acquired a set of 47 photographs by Vignes of Palmyra and Beirut.

(Lous Vignes photo/Charles Negre Print/Getty Research institute)

Martyrdom and historic loss are the common threads in two recent acquisitions by the J. Paul Getty Trust.

One is a poignant, nearly 600-year-old alabaster figure of a saint who Catholic tradition says was crucified by the ancient Romans – a sculpture that the Nazis looted in 1934 from a German Jewish industrialist.

The other is a set of rare, 151-year-old photographs of the ancient Roman ruins at Palmyra that recently have become modern-day martyrs to the fanaticism of Islamic State.

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The Getty says the photographs are the first ever taken of Palmyra’s Roman ruins.

“The ongoing Syrian civil war now threatens to obliterate Palmyra utterly. These photographs represent rare primary documents of a region and world heritage site in crisis, preserving the memory of its ancient monuments… for posterity,” said Frances Terpak, curator of photography at the Getty Research Institute.

They were taken in 1864 by Louis Vignes, a French naval officer, during an expedition to Syria and Lebanon sponsored by Albert, duc de Luynes, a French aristocrat who was an art collector and archaeologist.

The Getty bought a suite of 47 prints from a Munich, Germany, art and photography dealer, for an undisclosed price. They include images of three sites recently destroyed by Islamic State: temples to the ancient pagan gods Bel and Baalshamin, and an Arch of Triumph -- all dating back nearly 2,000 years to the time when Palmyra was a major city on trade routes through the Roman-dominated Middle East.

Islamic State seized Palmyra in May and began destroying its ancient legacy, asserting that the pagan ruins were an affront to its version of Islam. It has spared smaller, portable relics in Iraq and Syria because of their value as smuggled wares that can be sold on the black market to unscrupulous antiquities collectors.

Khaled al-Assad, who had been the chief archaeologist in charge of Palmyra for decades, was beheaded in August and his corpse was hung from an ancient column. An associate told reporters that the 82-year-old scholar had angered the Islamic State conquerors by refusing to answer when they asked him where they could find pieces they could loot and sell.

“In the face of the unspeakable human tragedy and cultural destruction…there is little scholars can do but strive to record, preserve and interpret the historical record of these tremendously important historic sites,” Thomas Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute, said in the announcement of the acquisition of Vignes’ photographs. “These rare photographs are now even more valuable as research documents.”

Vignes also took pictures of Beirut during the 1864 expedition. The set of prints acquired by the Getty is called “Views and Panoramas of Beirut and the Ruins of Palmyra.”

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The Getty says the pictures are “the earliest photographs of the Roman ruins in Palmyra and some of the earliest views of Beirut.” Spokeswoman Amy Hood said there are no immediate plans to exhibit the pictures, although they will be digitized and made available to researchers online.

Curator Terpak said that the prints are extremely high quality; some images are the only known ones developed from the negatives; in other cases only two or three prints are known to exist.

The prints were made by Charles Negre, a leading French photographer who had been Vignes’ teacher.

The other recent major Getty acquisition is a 17-inch figure of Saint Philip, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. It’s attributed to an artist known only as the Master of the Rimini Altar, after a masterwork that once graced a church outside the Italian city of Rimini and is now housed at the Liebieghaus sculpture museum in Frankfurt, Germany.

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The sculptor, a Dutch artist whose name is not known, is believed to have created the statue between 1420 and 1430 of a sorrowful-looking Philip bearing a cross.

Curator Anne-Lise Desmas said there’s no dispute that it’s by the same artist who created the famous altarpiece from Rimini, because it “possesses all the characteristics to attest that he is a true twin” of figures from that well-known work.

The sculpture belonged to art collector Ottmar Strauss until 1934, when he relinquished it in a forced sale under pressure from the Nazis. The new owner bequeathed it in 1951 to the Museum of Applied Arts in Frankfurt. Last year the museum restituted it to Strauss’ heirs, who put it up for auction at Sotheby’s in London in December. It fetched $846,000 from a British art dealer, Daniel Katz Ltd., who in turn sold it for an undisclosed price to the Getty, where it is now on display.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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